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Md. lawmakers craft sports betting measure

Sports betting at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in 2013. Nevada currently is the only state where single-game wagering is legal. But should the U.S. Supreme Court uphold a New Jersey’s law legalizing such betting at the state’s racetracks and casinos, it could lead to a nationwide repeal of a federal sports betting ban. (DepositPhotos/NickNick)

Sports betting at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Maryland lawmakers are hoping to craft a measure that would allow the state to join several of its neighbors in offering sports betting options.(DepositPhotos/NickNick)

Sports betting in Maryland could be a reality by the end of the year as part of a Senate proposal that would offer an unlimited number of coveted mobile licenses as well as licenses for smaller operators.

The changes, if approved by the full Senate, set up a potential conference committee with the House in an effort to get a deal done before gaveling the 2021 session to an end late Monday night. Sen. Craig Zucker, D-Montgomery and chair of the Senate work group that crafted the amendments to the House bill, said the Senate version represents a hybrid between a Senate bill that died late last year and one sponsored this year by House Speaker Adrienne Jones.

“We are going to get sports betting done this year, and this bill is a road map to getting that done,” said Zucker.

The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee met late Tuesday to hammer out amendments that resulted in a committee vote and plans for a full Senate vote later this week.

“I feel like we’re close on this,” said Sen. Guy Guzzone, D-Howard and chair of the Budget and Taxation Committee.

Both bills attempt to create a meaningful way for minority owners to obtain both a physical and a mobile license — key to Jones, who stressed the importance of ensuring Black business owners and others could get a foot in the sports betting industry door.

The Senate version of the bill differs significantly from the House bill sponsored by Jones, the House leader, that imposed limits on the number of so-called brick and mortar licenses as well as the coveted mobile licenses.

Guzzone said the fundamental question that needed resolution “was who should be able to get a license in this” and ensuring that minority owners had an opportunity to own an equity take in the industry.

“Probably the fairest thing to do was just to do a free-market approach, if you will, and allow pretty much anybody that could meet the criteria … and are willing to put in their own expertise and their own financing to get it going  should have the opportunity to do it,” said Guzzone.

Jones’ bill called for automatic licenses for casinos and the major league stadiums, the state fairgrounds in Timonium and a special permit for Pimlico.

The House version set aside 10 Class B licenses for other brick-and-mortar facilities, including one specifically for The Riverboat on the Potomac. Those licenses would be bid competitively and awarded by a new Sports Wagering Application Commission.

It’s the final class of licenses, 15 mobile licenses, that are the most sought-after because they are the most lucrative. The licenses are not currently tied to any other class of license proposed in the legislation and would also be competitively bid.

But many felt that the House bill established a tiered system that would see most of the licenses gobbled up by well-financed large gaming interests and leave little for small operators, including minorities.

The Senate changes would first allow casinos in the state — as well as the three major league stadiums that partner with those venues — to acquire a license for a physical sports betting facility almost immediately.

Licenses for the sports facilities — Camden Yards, M&T Bank Stadium and the Washington Football team facility — would be open for use year-round rather than tied to special events and games, as in the House version. Teams that partner with a casino would be required to work with one in the same jurisdiction in which the stadium is located.

The state would also offer an unlimited number of licenses for smaller businesses — off-track betting facilities and bingo halls — as well the coveted mobile licenses. Both license types would require the approval of state gaming regulators based on a rolling application process. Preference would be given to businesses with “meaningful minority participation.”

The number of licenses would be limited only by proximity to another licensee. In rural areas, a license holder cannot be within 15 miles of another. In suburban areas, that exclusion zone is 1.5 miles.

In recent years, lawmakers have seen efforts to bring minorities into industries such as medical cannabis falter as they attempted to create standards in which applications were scored and received bumps for having minority equity ownership. Specific set-asides for groups are much harder and face higher levels of legal scrutiny.

Competition for the mobile licenses, sometimes referred to in the industry as “skins,” is expected to be fierce.  Recently in Virginia, there were more than two dozen applications for just 12 mobile licenses.

A recent report from the American Gaming Association found that 80% of sports bets are placed online or via a smartphone application.

In Pennsylvania, more than 94% of all sports betting in the state in recent months has been conducted online and not in a physical venue.

The bill also calls for setting aside money for a small business fund to help women and minority owners pay for licenses and training to enter the industry. Another fund would provide $1.5 million for two historically Black colleges and universities in the state to begin programs to train entrepreneurs in the skills needed for the sports betting industry.

A Senate work group on the issue also proposed making the bill emergency legislation, taking effect immediately upon being signed by the governor. Lawmakers said they hoped the move would allow casinos to begin taking wagers on sporting events as soon as this fall.

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